HL Deb 14 December 1900 vol 88 cc812-7

My Lords, in rising to ask Her Majesty's Government what official medical inspections, if any, of the wounded and invalided colonial troops returning to Australia in the Royal Mail steamers, Orient Line, took place before their embarkment, and what medical supervision was provided for them during the voyages by the War Office, I hope I may be permitted to remind your Lordships of the circumstances which led me to put the question on the Paper. On Monday last* my noble friend beside me, Earl Carrington, asked Her Majesty's Government for some explanation with regard to the treatment of certain colonial troops who had been invalided home from active service and were about to undertake the voyage back to their respective colonies. The action of my noble friend in ventilating this subject has been entirely and amply justified by the observations which were subsequently made by the Secretary of State for War in another place.† The gravamen of my noble friend's complaint did not lie so much in the fact that these men had been sent home as third-class passengers, though that obviously lends itself to very substantial criticism. What my noble friend rightly complained of was that, though the majority of them were recovering from wounds or from enteric fever, they were put upon third-class dietary during the voyage, without the slightest discrimination. I am well aware that the third-class fare of our great liners is of excellent quality, and no doubt admirably adapted to a normal stomach; but when a man is recovering from enteric fever his digestive organs are not strong enough to enable him to eat food which may be in every way suitable for a man in the best of health. When the noble Earl brought the matter before the House the other evening, and stated that one man who had been ordered to embark as a third-class passenger had a temperature of 104 degrees, I ventured to ask whether these men had been medically examined before their embarkment. I put that question on the spur of the moment. I did not think it necessary to give notice of it, because it seemed to me a question of so elementary a nature, and so obviously germane to the original ques- * See page 326. † See page 553. tion put by the noble Lord, Earl Carrington, that the information would naturally have been in the possession of the noble Lord to whom had been given the duty of replying on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. No definite information, however, was given to me on the subject, and the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, while expressing the opinion that such an examination had probably taken place, suggested that I should repeat the question in order to get a categorical answer. Since then, the Secretary of State for War has admitted in another place that there has been some omission or negligence with regard to the cases to which attention was called by the noble Earl beside me. That admission, I think, makes my question to-night even more necessary, because, if these troops were examined by a proper medical officer before they were embarked, the responsibility for any neglect that took place falls in great measure on that medical officer, and incidentally on those who selected him for the duty. If, on the contrary, these invalids home from the Cape, who had hardly recovered from fever or wounds, were about to be sent back to their respective colonies on third-class dietary, and with third-class accommodation, without any medical examination, then I venture to think some serious responsibility rests upon Her Majesty's Government. Official medical examination seems to me a matter of absolute necessity in all such cases, but I think even more care ought to have been taken in the case of invalided colonial volunteers, who for the first time in our history have been fighting side by side with the Regular army. It would be a matter of extreme regret to everyone if these gallant men returned to their homes with the feeling that there had been a want of that solicitude for their comfort and welfare in this country which their services to the Empire demanded. For my part I cannot believe it possible that no medical examination took place, and it is for the purpose of eliciting the truth on the subject that I have ventured to put the question standing in my name to Her Majesty's Government.


My Lords, wherever it was possible these men were sent direct to their own homes from South Africa, but in certain eases the men were brought to England to relieve the convalescent depôts at the Cape. A depôt was formed at Shorncliffe for the invalided colonial soldiers, and at the request of the Secretary of State for War I myself visited the depot on Wednesday and thoroughly inspected it. I will come to that later on. A large number of these men were convalescent, and were considered well enough to undertake the long voyage from the Cape to this country, and the greater part of them arrived, I am glad to say, in a state of advanced convalescence. Sick furlough was granted to those men who applied for it to the extent of three months, and for any furlough beyond that period they had to produce a medical certificate. Many of them returned to Shorncliffe before finally embarking for their respective colonies. I can assure your Lordships that the medical examination was most carefully conducted at Shorncliffe, and that no man left that dep6t to undertake the voyage who was not in an absolutely fit state of health to travel. The cases mentioned by the noble Earl on Monday were of men who had been either on furlough or in convalescent homes in various parts of the country, and who went direct to the port of embarkation. The arrangements by which these men went from the convalescent homes or from wherever they happened to be living direct to the port of embarkation were originally made, I believe, to save them trouble, and it was considered that they would not leave their convalescent homes or their furlough if they were not in a fit state to travel. In certain cases, therefore, the men were not medically examined before they went on board the ship. That is a most unfortunate circumstance, which the War Office very much regret. In future arrangements will be made to remedy that mistake. With regard to the accommodation provided for these men, the noble Lord was informed on Monday that there are on these liners three classes of third-class accommodation. These men were provided with superior third-class accommodation—that is to say, they had only two berths in a cabin—and were provided with a liberal and varied dietary. I will read to your Lordships the third-class dietary table, which, I think, speaks for itself— Breakfast, 8 a.m.—Porridge, with milk, fish, chops, steaks, sausages, Irish stew, curried meat with rice, cold meats, fresh bread, butter, jam, marmalade, tea. Dinner 1 p.m.—Soups, broths, fish, roast and boiled meats, fresh vegetables, puddings (various), stewed fruits, etc. Tea, 5 p.m.—Cold meats (various), with pickles or salad, cakes, buns, etc., bread, butter, jam, marmalade. Supper, 8 p.m.—Kread, butter, biscuits, and chesse. In my opinion, therefore, there was some excuse for the War Office in thinking that these men, who were convalescent, were being provided with a sufficient dietary to thoroughly restore them to health. I can assure the noble Lord opposite that all possible care will be taken in the future with regard to their embarkation. In consequence of statements that have been made in reference to Shorncliffe, I myself visited the camp on Wednesday and found the aarangements of a satisfactory character. There were no colonial troops actually in mess on the day of my visit. Eight or ten, however, were living in the coffee shop, and seemed most comfortable. Men who are not there for more than two days are not put in mess, but live in the coffee shop. Practically they have no fatigue work of any sort to do, this work being done by defaulters in the provisional battalion. The bath accommodation is ample, there being eight baths for privates and five for non-commissioned officers. Hot water is available at all hours of the day. The difficulty has been very much increased owing to the sudden coming and going of men from a hundred different regiments, a great portion of them staying only for a short time. I can assure the House that the War Office are only too anxious that these men should receive the comfort and consideration to which their suffering and their services to the Empire entitle them.


I only rise to thank the noble Lord for his reply, and to point out to him that he has not entirely answered my question. I further asked what medical provision was provided for these men during the voyage. Judging from the menu which the noble Lord has read, medical supervision seems to be highly necessary, for cheese and pickles are not proper food to give men recovering from typhoid fever.


These liners all carry a qualified doctor, who would naturally be the person to whom the men would apply when they were unwell.


My Lords, I desire to express the great satisfaction with which I have heard the statement of the noble Lord opposite. No doubt there was a very considerable grievance on the part of these men; but, as I said the other- night when I brought this subject before your Lordships, I was perfectly certain that it was not the wish of Her Majesty's Government to treat them in this way. I then expressed the opinion that it was due to departmental mismanagement. Your Lordships will remember that I was somewhat severely taken to task by the noble Marquess the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who described my statement as exaggerated and misleading. I can assure you that it was very far from my desire to use exaggerated language. My only desire was to put the matter as plainly as I possibly could before the House. I have forwarded information of several cases to the Secretary of State for War, and I have to acknowledge the fairness and courtesy of the right hon. Gentleman, and the readiness with which he has listened to the representations made to him in regard to this matter. As I have been accused of exaggeration, I hope I may be permitted to refer to another case—the case of a man named Freeman. Trooper Freeman is the son of a New South Wales Government official, and was in the second contingent of the New South Wales Mounted Rifles. I knew the family very well in New South Wales. Freeman gave up a post worth £300 a year to fight for the Empire and the Queen. He was offered £350 a year if he would remain, but he declined, and went off to the front. I heard that this man was lying ill in Soho Square, and reported the matter to the Agent-General, who replied thanking me for bringing the case to his attention, and stating that when an official called at his lodging in Soho Square he was informed that Trooper Freeman had gone to see the Army doctor. On 10th November we received at the office of our fund, through the assistance of which every colonial returning to his home has been able to have the comforts of the second class, a letter from Freeman's late landlord in Soho Square to the effect that he had sailed on the previous day. He added— Trooper Freeman was very unwell, and really not fit to go, but his orders were im- perative. I am grieved that a man in his state of health should have been sent steerage. I mention this case in the hope that your Lordships will not think that in the statement I made on Monday I used exaggerated language. I hope I may take it from the noble Lord that for the future these men will be well cared for and provided with all the comforts of second-class travelling.


It is the case that these men will in the future be sent home with all the comforts of second-class travelling. The Lord Mayor's Fund, which so kindly came to their assistance before, will, I hope, not be called upon again. If the noble Earl will be good enough to send particulars of the case he mentioned it shall be inquired into. Any man who wishes it can obtain an extension of sick furlough if he sends a medical certificate. Of this fact probably the New South Wales trooper referred to by the noble Earl was not aware.


Would a man be able to obtain an extension of furlough by sending a medical certificate from a country doctor?


A certificate from any qualified medical man would be accepted.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before Six of the clock till To-morrow, Twelve of the clock.